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Wikileaks and Southeast Asia

by Joshua Kurlantzick
September 9, 2011

Founder of WikiLeaks Julian Assange smiles as he arrives for his extradition hearing at Belmarsh Magistrates' Court in east London.

Founder of WikiLeaks Julian Assange smiles as he arrives for his extradition hearing at Belmarsh Magistrates' Court in east London (Toby Melville/Courtesy Reuters).

The recent releases of new batches of Wikileaks cables, many of which reveal the names of protected sources for American diplomats, has roiled diplomatic relations nearly everywhere in the world, and certainly made potential informants more scared of talking to U.S. diplomats. But the cache of cables available about Southeast Asia is among the largest, if not the largest, of any embassy. And recent weeks have seen the release of cables with major news stories, including:

  • A cable interviewing Singaporean Straits Times editors and reporters who claim that the government applies significant pressure on them to take a rosy view of its policies. Some of the finest Straits Times’ reporters, frustrated by what they perceive as government pressure, try to remain in overseas bureaus, where they are much freer (and put out fine work) or simply leave the Straits Times entirely.
  •  A cable in which the former U.S. ambassador to the Philippines Kristie Kenney (now in Thailand) denigrates current Philippine president Benigno Aquino III, then a Philippine senator and presidential candidate, as “diffident and unassertive.” Other cables by U.S. diplomats in the Philippines highlight an often-fraught relationship, one in which, despite deep cultural, historic, and economic ties, American officials remain exasperated at the failure of reform in the Philippines, and that exasperation sometimes sparks Filipino anger.
  • Numerous cables by U.S. officials outlining rampant corruption in post-Suharto Indonesia – corruption putting the lie to the idea that burgeoning democracy in Indonesia is serving to reduce graft. In fact, as I have noted in previous posts, the early years of democracy in Indonesia actually seem to be creating a kind of decentralization of corruption, with more and more provincial-level and other lower officials able to put their hands out.
  • Troves of cables chronicling the last days of the rule of Rama IX in Bangkok, including ones with information so sensitive anyone posting them in Thailand would be arrested. Some of the cables rank among the most insightful pieces of writing ever done on the Thai monarchy. Many of the cables are summarized at #Thaistory Blog.

It remains to be seen whether these revelations, which are among the most sensitive and revealing of any Wikileaks documents out there, will permanently damage American diplomats’ range of freedom in Southeast Asia. But in region with plenty of secrets, and where most governments are not used to those secrets being aired, my guess is the State Department has suffered permanent damage.

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